Graphic from IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C

By Todd Vachon

The latest report issued by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on October 8 is the starkest report to date on the real and immediate threat that global warming poses to human existence. The report finds that if greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels by 2040, submerging coastlines, intensifying droughts and wildfires, increasing the frequency and strength of extreme storms, and worsening food shortages and poverty. Perhaps the most attention-grabbing aspect of the report is that these dire consequences will come to pass well within the lifetime of much of the global population.

While similar warnings about the consequences of continued fossil fuel consumption have been issued in the past, efforts to cut carbon and other GHG emissions to a climate-safe level have been largely defeated in arenas ranging from the United Nations to the U.S. Congress. Corporations and other powerful political actors have been the dominant factors in this process, but many other people and institutions have pursued short-term self-interest at the expense of climate protection, often in pursuit of their own economic survival. For example, local communities and workers dependent on fossil fuel industries have campaigned to weaken climate protection legislation and block international climate agreements.

However, local communities and workers are also the primary victims of climate catastrophe as has been witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane’s Katrina, Maria, and Harvey and Superstorm Sandy. In fact, the working class is always hit first and worst by climate change, particularly those who are already most hurt by our economic and political systems: women and people of color. It is for these reasons that some in the labor movement have been building an independent, working class climate movement that challenges the governments that permit climate destruction, the fossil fuel producing and using industries that conduct it, and the corporations and other institutions around the world that collude with it. These labor climate activists are promoting solutions.

Above: Madeline Evans of Henryville, Ind., walks the parking lot of her elementary school, March 3, 2012. The school and much of her town was devastated by a large tornado the day before. The Indiana National Guard activated more than 250 Soldiers from across the state to come to the aid of the community. (Indiana National Guard photo by Sgt. John Crosby). Used with permission by Creative Commons.

To be blunt, climate change poses an immediate existential threat to our species, to every individual, and to all that any of us hold dear. For this reason, protecting the earth’s climate is in the long-term interest of all humanity and we in labor, as the organized voice of the working class majority of the planet, must take a leading role in this struggle to put the interests of people before profits. It is to this end that the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) has been organizing a series of local and national “labor convergences” on climate around the country. Activists in Los Angeles met in July to strategize about ways to build the labor movement into a force for climate protection and justice. In the Northeast, labor-climate activists from Maryland to Maine will converge at the Labor Education Center at Rutgers University in November.

The Convergence will encourage climate protection advocates to organize locally and nationally in their own unions; encourage climate solidarity with workers around the world; build cooperation among climate protection advocates and caucuses in different unions; educate labor’s leadership and rank and file on the realities of climate change; transform the discourse and ultimately the policy of the labor movement; and bring local labor unions and activists into engagement with climate and climate justice organizations and activists in their own communities.

As workers and trade unionists, we can either initiate change or be the victims of it, or worse yet, suffer the consequences of inaction. We choose the former and thus resolve to use our power to reshape economic, political, and social systems in the interests of all the world’s people who are threatened by climate change.

Todd is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, a member of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT and the UAW Local 1981, and also serves on the steering committee of the Labor Network for Sustainability’s (LNS) Labor Convergence on Climate. Todd’s opinion-editorial, “How workers, local unions can take the lead on climate change,” was recently published in New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. Read it here »